Sir Jeffrey Donaldson preparing to take on Edwin Poots in DUP’s first open leadership contest

As Edwin Poots’ campaign for the DUP leadership last night received endorsement from five MLAs and an MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to announce that he will stand, the News Letter has been told.

Saturday, 1st May 2021, 7:01 am
Updated Saturday, 1st May 2021, 8:48 am

Last night Mr Poots tweeted six videos of support from among the group of 35 DUP MPs and MLAs whose votes will decide who succeeds Arlene Foster

Including himself, that means that he already has seven votes – 40% of the way to the figure of 18 which will give him the DUP’s top job. Others known to back Mr Poots have not yet said that publicly.

However, despite several of Mr Poots’ supporters believing that he already has the numbers to win, the DUP is likely to see its first ever contest for the leadership – something which many party members believe would be healthy.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to put his name forward to succeed Arlene Foster as DUP leader

A source with knowledge of Sir Jeffrey’s thinking told the News Letter that he was likely to run.

But even as debate on the future of the party begins, yesterday it emerged that Arlene Foster has made a highly unusual decision – to resign her membership of the DUP when she leaves as First Minister at the end of June.

The BBC reported that Mrs Foster had informed her constituency association on Thursday that she will be leaving the party.

A source close to Mrs Foster was reported to say that “she believes this is not the party she joined...some people are seeking to drag the party back to 1972”.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Mrs Foster did nothing to deny the accuracy of the report.

As the DUP, which has long described itself as a family, divides into pro and anti-Foster camps, the outgoing party leader yesterday pointedly said that none of those who this week ousted her had come to explain their actions.

The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said politics is “brutal” and she has endured a “turbulent” week, but she insisted she is “at peace” with her decision to leave politics.

After posting a series of endorsement videos on social media last night, Mr Poots put out a 22-second video clip in which he referred to having “been so greatly encouraged by the numbers that have came [sic] forward in support of me”.

He said that they were endorsing “my vision for the people of Northern Ireland” – a vision which he has not yet publicly shared.

In his video, Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley said that as Stormont’s youngest unionist he had seen how Mr Poots had encouraged young people to get into politics and that “now is a time for unionists to find a figure that they can unite behind”.

South Antrim MP Paul Girvan said that Mr Poots had “the skills, strength and determination to lead our great country and our party”.

North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey said that Mr Poots had “the vision and the skills needed to lead the DUP”.

Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan said that Mr Poots had encouraged him into politics as a 16-year-old and that he had seen as a close colleague “how he’s dealt with many challenges”. He added that Mr Poots had a desire to build “a shared society” and was committed to “respecting diversity”.

Arguably the most significant endorsement came from South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford – someone who was one of Mrs Foster’s most loyal allies.

He said: “I’m proud to say that he was always someone who encouraged me, and other young people from a working class background, to get involved in politics”. Alluding to Mr Poots’ scepticism about some of the covid lockdown measures, Mr Stalford said he had “shown leadership and determination – not only to protect our lives...but also to protect our livelihoods”.

Another significant endorsement came from North Antrim MLA Paul Frew – the most vocal internal DUP proponent of reforms to address the secrecy and power of spads revealed by the RHI scandal.

Mr Frew said: “Edwin and I have had long conversations about the changing face of politics and the challenges that lie ahead. Edwin gets it when I talk about reform.”

Last night the BBC reported that the DUP party officers will not meet until next Tuesday to discuss the timetable and procedure for the leadership election.

Yesterday DUP minister Diane Dodds accepted that she may lose her job under the new leader. She insisted that Mrs Foster had been “a great leader of the party and of unionism”

Yesterday Mrs Foster stressed that some of her “very good friends” did not sign the letter of no confidence which forced her out.

She added: “I haven’t really had any engagement from any of the colleagues who felt that I should leave, so I suppose that’s the disappointment – that I don’t actually know what the reason is for it, but, as I say, you know, that’s politics.

“All political careers have to come to an end, mine will come to an end at the end of June.”

She said she wishes whoever leads the party well, but would not be drawn on who she would be supporting in any leadership contest: “I don’t know who the next leader of the party is going to be, I don’t know what their policies are going to be.”

Foster: I’ll do something different after politics

Arlene Foster has confirmed that she will resign as an MLA and will quit politics, after which she will “do something different”.

Speaking to reporters after a visit to Kirkistown Primary School, Mrs Foster declined to say if she would accept a seat in the Lords, stressing that it was not her decision as to whether that would be offered to her.

She said: “I think the time is right to move on and to do something different, and that’s what I’ll do.” She added: “I still haven’t seen the letter that was talked about, so I presume I will see that at some stage.”

Mrs Foster also said: “Politics is a very brutal game – I think everybody knows that to be the case. I haven’t actually spoken to any of the colleagues who are purported to have signed the letters, they haven’t been in touch. So, you know, that’s a matter for them.

“I’ll move on and look forward, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter as to what I’m going to do with my life.”

Accepting the scale of internal opposition to her, she said: “It was made clear to me by the number of people who felt that they wanted to sign the letter, which as I say I haven’t seen yet, that I didn’t have the support of my colleagues, and when you don’t have the support of your colleagues you really can’t continue in the job as party leader.

“So the time is right to move on, to do something different and do something new, and I’m very much looking forward to that challenge.”

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